Once in a while the stars align to create the best there is, and out of rarity, comes legend. In the guitar world few models will turn as many heads as the mythical 1959 Gibson Les Paul. Played by guitarists such as Jimmy Page, Billy Gibbons, Keith Richards, Peter Green, Duane Allman and countless others, this guitar has been used to make some of the greatest songs of all time. What made this model year so important? How could a guitar that was sold new for less than $300, now sell for $375,000 or more? For starters it was simply the year that Gibson got it all right.

Let’s Take a Step Back For a Second…

The Les Paul made its debut into the world in 1952 with the “Goldtop”; it became Gibson’s first ever solid body. This guitar, while absolutely beautiful, had a few quirks such as the trapeze tailpiece moving, which caused the guitar to go out of tune, which did not allow for the player to palm mute, due to the strings being wrapped under the bar.  These quirks forced the team in Kalamazoo, MI, where Gibson’s were made at the time, to innovate and create a much more stable bridge.

For the 1955 model, Gibson nailed it with the now common practice Tune-O-Matic bridge and tailpiece.  These features allowed the guitar to not only be more stable, but also intonate better than ever before.  While this iteration of the Les Paul was more desirable than previous models, the ever changing music scene demanded something with a little more oomph.  That oomph was met with the almighty creation of the humbucker in 1957.

The humbucker pickup (at the time featured brushed stainless steel covers compared to nickel plated brass) not only provided a far fatter tone than the Les Paul’s staple pickup and P90 cousin, but also quite literally “bucked the hum” and reduced the noise of the guitar!

By now, the 1957 Les Paul began to closely resemble what would become its perfect form, with Gibson changing the now ultra-collectable black plastic “M69” pickup to a cream color and altered the Gibson logo. It wasn’t until 1958 that things really started to get fun.

Though Gibson had been using the sunburst finishes on other instruments, it wasn’t until May 1958 that it was used with the Les Paul models. This guitar showcased for the first time the beautiful Eastern maple two- piece top on its one- piece Honduran mahogany body, a large bat like neck and small frets.  This can be considered as the closest to “the grail” Gibson got until Ted McCarty, President of Gibson at the time, and his team made just a few more tweaks.

Now with larger frets (09’’ to .100’’), Patent Applied For (PAF) pickups and a slightly smaller but incredibly comfortable neck, the 1959 Les Paul came into existence. Let’s take a deeper dive into what else made this legendary guitar so special.

The Body

The same way all great meals start with great ingredients, the 1959 Les Paul started that way too, with a perfect balance of materials and craftsmanship.

The body consisted of a one piece Honduran mahogany back and an Eastern maple top glued together by hide glue.  It’s important to note that while Gibson reportedly used African mahogany during times of low Honduran supply as well as a few other species of Mahogany, African mahogany is actually a totally different species of wood altogether. Due to African mahogany’s lighter weight, it has become a modern day substitute.  Back in the 50s, the Honduran mahogany that was being sourced was far different than today’s mahogany and was much lighter due to the quality of the lumber.

The body of the 1959 Les Paul is also interesting because it has three markings distinct to guitars of that era.  Beginning with, what has become known as “the second route”; this “second route” is found in the control cavity of the body and was done to properly drill the holes for the controls.  Once the body was constructed, a second jig was used at a separate angle to drill the holes.  While this isn’t important to the tone of the guitar, it is an historical accuracy not seen anywhere else.  The result of this was often slight, subtle tool marks in the body and a piece of the mahogany meeting the maple top.  An additional marking typically found within 1959 Les Pauls was a slight chisel mark made inside the toggle switch cavity.  In order to fit the toggle switch in, occasionally, a chisel was used to remove some extra wood internally to make it fit.

The body further featured, deeper bridge anchor studs that were 1’’ deep into the body compared to a current depth of ⅞’’.  This is of great importance because the deeper length allows the guitar body to resonate more with the bridge and string vibrations producing more sustain within the instrument.

The Eastern maple top is different from that of its Western cousin because it is actually a harder wood and produces a different type of flame pattern in the wood[1].  Because the wood is harder, it helps with vibrational transfer improving sustain.  Also interesting to point out is that featured in the top horn of a finished guitar; there is a slight sliver of maple that is a different color than the top and the body; that sliver of maple is a result of the way the binding was installed on the guitars at the time.  This is one of the biggest ways to quickly determine if your Les Paul is of vintage.

The top carve of a 50’s Les Paul is by far the most unique feature when compared to a Les Paul of any other decade.  The contours of the top are deep and pronounced.  They create what almost appears to be a waist and produces a beautiful contour when in the light.  This top carve is exclusive to any 50’s Les Paul. Despite countless iterations of the Les Paul model, this top carve has never been duplicated properly in any other models after that decade.  Les Pauls moving forward had top carves with a more rounded and less pronounced shape.

Hot hide glue is composed of; you guessed it, animal hide.  It was the glue of choice back in the day.  This glue is a surprisingly huge part of the tone because hide glue crystallizes differently than other types of glue.  Hide glue also is easy to separate with heat (that is why many old violins come apart).  This glue is ideal for instruments because of its hard crystal structure which helps increase vibrational transfer and provides a very strong hold.

The Neck

Just like the body, the neck was constructed of Honduran mahogany with ½’’ thick wings glued to the headstock on each side where the holly veneer would sit upon the 17°[2] headstock angle.  The neck featured an internal maple filler strip to hold the half-moon washer, single action truss rod.  The neck and fingerboard were glued together with hide glue and then fastened to the body with more hide glue.

The neck of a 1959 Les Paul has often been considered a “baseball bat” due to pop culture and folklore.  The 1959 Les Paul neck, while it varied in size due to being hand carved, featured a rounded C profile.  The exact measurements of the last one I was able to analyze and study came out to be roughly .872’’ at the first fret and .955’’.  This puts the alleged “baseball bat” neck in at a more comfortable profile that was large enough to feel comfortable, but small enough to still play fast.  The 1959 Les Paul standard also featured a long neck tenon which provided more sustain thanks to how it was mated to the body.

The fingerboard consisted of a Brazilian rosewood board, cellulose trapezoid inlays which came from a factory out of Italy, a 12’’ radius and .100’’ fretwire.  The inlays for the fingerboard differ from modern Gibsons in both color and material although current run Gibson Custom Shop 1959 Les Pauls’ do feature cellulose inlays.  Original inlays typically have a grainy-like visual texture and less cloudy look.

The scale length on a 1959 Les Paul featured what is now referred to as “The Rule of 18”.  Despite claiming a 24 ¾’’ scale length, it typically was a length of 24 9/16’’.  While this is an incremental difference, it is an historical accuracy not represented outside of that era*

The nut was a 6/6 nylon nut.  This nut is made of hard nylon and provided not only a strong material but good tuning stability.  The tuners were single ring D-169400 Patent Number Kluson’s.  These tuners over time have been known to shrink and discolor creating beautiful shades of browns and yellows.

The Hardware

Have you ever swapped your bridge and heard a tremendous difference? The physical composition of the metal hardware has a major effect on the tone.

Here is a list of 1959 Les Paul hardware for everyone playing the home game:

  • Thumbscrews: Nickel plated brass wheel with steel thread insert
  • Stud Anchor: Steel
  • Tailpiece Studs: Nickel plated steel
  • Bridge: No Wire ABR-1 nickel plated bridge with brass saddles
  • Tailpiece: Aluminum

This combination of depth, length and material choice created incredibly resonant guitars that rang like a bell and had enough vibrational transfer to produce the now legendary Les Paul sustain.

The Pickups

The pickups used at the time of the 1959 Les Paul were known as PAF pickups.  These “Patent Applied For” pickups were known as that because of the small sticker marked “Patent Applied For” found underneath each pickup base (Seth Lover, the humbucker’s creator received his patent 7/28/1959 but the name PAF stuck).

PAF pickups were wound on a Leesona 102 winder and typically featured a purple hued #42 AWG wire and a randomly selected 2.5’’ long Alnico 2, 3, 4 or 5 magnet of varying strength and had an average rating of 7.0 – 9.0K.  The pickups were then covered with a nickel plated brass pickup cover.  The reason for so much variation in the PAF tone is due to not only the randomly selected magnet, but also because the Leesona 102 machine’s automated features would break resulting in employees having to time the wind instead.  Timing the wind often meant that each pickup was not exactly identical to the other.  This resulted in having various ratings from pickup to pickup.

The Finish

Unlike today’s modern polyurethane lacquers and even current day nitrocellulose lacquer, Gibson’s of the 50’s had a nitro finish that featured non-plasticised lacquer.

It is because of this non-plasticised lacquer that vintage Gibson’s typically have what is referred to as checking.  This look is sometimes mistaken as “cracks” in the guitar and is the result of the finish heating and cooling.  Just like a piece of glass that is put under the same conditions, the finish “cracks” resulting in what is referred to as a checked finish.  This is highly desirable by many musicians now and some even pay extra for that to happen to their guitars!

Though some manufacturers produce guitars with nitrocellulose finish, due to constantly changing environmental laws and regulations, standard issue nitrocellulose typically contains plasticizers which make the finish much harder to check and age.

50’s Les Pauls were first finished with cherry red pore filler on the back and then sprayed with aniline dye on the tops. This aniline dye is notoriously known for fading in sunlight which is why many of today’s ‘bursts typically are not the factory finish sunburst.  This dye is unique to the 1950s as Gibson later modified their formulas in the 1960s to combat this issue resulting in tops that do not fade.

Burst to the Future

If you’re looking to breathe the rarified air of an original ’59 Les Paul, there are reportedly 157 currently in existence; however the days of finding them for under $200,000 are a thing of the past and you’ll likely pay more than $250,000; Kirk Hammett reportedly paid $2 million for his. However, you can still get a version of it through the Gibson Custom Shop.

There have been many variations of the Gibson Les Paul over the years, some have been hits, some not so much; but since 1952 Gibson and Les Paul have been making some beautiful music and guitars together, with the 1959 still remaining as the undisputed king of them all.

Check out Zac’s playlist of these 10 rockin’ tracks featuring the ’59 Les Paul!

[1] Eastern and Western maple can of course share very similar looks, but as a general rule, the above is true

[2] All Gibsons at the time were made by hand so not all measurements listed are 100% accurate all the time.  Gibson at that time was notorious for slight variations per guitar.  It’s what made each unique!